Paula Danziger owes a slice of her success to a pizza party. Her popular books about Amber Brown were inspired by a phone conversation with her then seven-year-old niece, Carrie, who was obviously upset.
"She was a crazed person," Danziger remembers.
"Aunt, we're having a pizza party at school," Carrie told her.
"Calm down," Danziger said. "You've had pizza before. What's really going on?"
"It's a going-away party for my best friend, Danny," Carrie confessed.
The result of that exchange was Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon, about Amber and her very best friend Justin, who is about to move. The feisty, pigtailed heroine has taken on a life of her own ever since, and young readers can now find this title in paperback. The latest installment is Amber Brown Goes Fourth, in which Amber enters fourth grade and looks for a new best friend. Next month Amber Brown Wants Extra Credit will be published, and more of her adventures are in the works.
Danziger's niece, now 13, is sometimes embarrassed by her literary counterpart, especially her hair. Carrie notes that the Amber shown on the cover of the paperback editions "has split ends," and, frankly, "shouldn't be wearing those stupid pigtails in the fourth grade."
In response, Danziger may grant Amber a haircut in a future book. Unfortunately, the new do will be "a bad one," she adds. Of course, Amber has always been wise beyond her years. Danziger originally envisioned her story in picture book form, but during the revision process discovered that it needed an older voice. As a result, the novels are chapter books for beginning readers, an audience often neglected in the publishing world.
Even Danziger has a literary counterpart in the series in the form of Amber's pal and confidante, Aunt Pam. The second book, You Can't Eat Your Chicken Pox, Amber Brown took off after Danziger invited her niece to London and Carrie came down with—well, you guessed it.
Despite the many real-life details tucked into the fiction, there are important differences between Carrie and Amber. Carrie's parents remain happily married, while Amber's have divorced. What's more, Amber is an only child; Carrie has three brothers, who have given Danziger literary fuel for other books.
While much lies in store for Amber, Danziger has vowed never to write about her niece after she graduates from sixth grade. "It just gets too complicated after that," Danziger says. "It's already complicated enough. In the book I'm writing now, she's much angrier than I ever thought she would be."
In contrast, the author comes across as a warm woman overflowing with ideas and energy. She divides her time between New York City, Woodstock in upstate New York, and London. She takes time out from writing to host a monthly literary segment for a BBC children's show called Live and Kicking. (Her popularity is secure in Great Britain. She was nominated for the British Book Award for children, but native Ann Fine, of Mrs. Doubtfire fame, edged her out.)
Perhaps some of Amber's newfound anger is rooted in Danziger's childhood, which had its share of complications, described in the well-received 1974 book that launched her career, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, about 13-year-old Marcy Lewis.
"[The book] is very much my growing up," she says. "At age 12, I was put on tranquilizers when I should have gotten help," she continues. "There was nothing major and awful, I just didn't feel [my family] was supportive and emotionally generous. My father was a very unhappy person, very sarcastic, and my mother is very nervous and worried about what people thought. They weren't monsters, but it wasn't a good childhood."
Danziger sums up the subject with one of her trademark quips: "I always say that the family would now be called dysfunctional; back then we were just Danzigers."
One of the things that's seen her through good times and bad is her sense of humor. She even names many of her characters after favorite comedians, such as Ernie Kovacs.
The origin of Amber Brown's name, however, is a joke between fellow writers. When author and illustrators Marc and Laurie Brown-the creators of a multitude of best-selling books about Arthur the Aardvark and his sister D.W.-were expecting a child, Danziger suggested that they name their baby Amber.
"Then everyone would call her Crayola Face," Danziger told them. Instead, the Browns named their daughter Eliza, and now she receives advance copies of the Amber Brown books for critique.
Before turning to writing, Danziger was a junior high school teacher. While her students provided plenty of raw material for the beginning writer, she strongly recommends that anyone interested in the craft take acting lessons, as she did, on the advice of a teacher.
"They're wonderful for anyone who wants to learn about characterization and motivation," she explains. "No matter what age you are, if you want something more than anything else, but can't have it, to me, that becomes a plot."
As for her own plots, she says, "I think my books talk about kids learning to like and respect themselves and each other. You can't write a message book; you just tell the best story you know how to tell."
An important mentor was poet John Ciardi, whose children Danziger babysat during her college years. After learning of their sitter's literary interests, Ciardi and his wife took Danziger to literary conferences.
"He taught me a lot about language," she remembers. He suggested that she analyze one poem by underlining the funny lines in red and the serious lines in blue. By the end of the poem, Ciardi said, you get purple.
"That's what I always write toward," Danziger says, "that mixture. I think that's why Amber Brown works: the books are funny and sad, and that's what people respond to."
Danziger's titles alone are often enough to catch the attention of adults and young readers alike. Take, for instance, Remember Me to Harold Square and its recent sequel set in London, Thames Doesn't Rhyme with James. Although written for an older audience than the Amber Brown books, they have the same witty humor and quick phrasing that appeal to kids today.
Of course, appealing to kids and appealing to their parents is not always the same thing. Danziger has noticed this at book signings for Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? Some parents have told her they would never buy such a book for their child; others say they can't wait to get it in the hands of their son or daughter.
"You know [the latter] are probably pretty good parents," Danziger says, "because they've got a sense of humor and they're not afraid."
Alice Cary has interviewed many writers for this publication.